Batten Student Group is Making the School a More Diverse and Inclusive Place

Student James Banks
Batten Student James Banks (BA ’20) introduces Shelley Murphy during Batten Hour. 

When James Banks (BA ’20) first attended the Black Presidents Council in 2016, he noticed that something was missing. A gathering of minority presidents at UVA, the event brought together leaders from across Grounds; Banks was attending as the president of Omega Psi Phi, a historically African American fraternity. He saw representatives from groups tied to many different schools, from the McIntire School of Commerce to the School of Engineering and Applied Science. The Batten School, however, was not represented. That’s when Banks decided to found Black Student Leaders in Policy (BSLIP).

Banks made that decision within a much wider context: a national dialogue about the history of slavery and the importance of black representation in every arena, from the film industry to our government. The inclusion of black perspectives is particularly vital when it comes to a school of public policy, says Banks.

“From a policy analysis perspective, people of color often come from communities where we see things that policy seriously affects taking place right in front of our eyes,” he said. “We're able to engage at a more intimate level.”

Along with Sela Carrington (BA ‘21), Banks heads BSLIP at Batten. Two of the group’s main goals are fairly straightforward: to increase the number of students of color at Batten and to create networks that will support those students during their time at UVA and beyond. But the third, giving black students a sense of ownership, is about a deeper shift: “We want to own our space and our experiences,” said Carrington.

In service of that goal, BSLIP has brought several renowned speakers to Grounds, including Shelley Murphy, a local genealogist who is leading UVA’s efforts to recognize descendants of enslaved laborers. When Murphy spoke about the history of Vinegar Hill, a historically African American neighborhood in Charlottesville that was razed in the 1960s after the city deemed it “blighted,” her words struck a chord with Banks—and reminded him of BSLIP’s essential role within Batten and the entire university.

Local genealogist Shelley Murphy speaks during a Batten Hour hosted by Black Student Leaders in Policy.
Local genealogist Shelley Murphy speaks during a Batten Hour hosted by Black Student Leaders in Policy.

“I've always been aware of the history of Vinegar Hill, but it’s something that I was never actually taught in secondary school here; it’s a hidden history. And I think that's the kind of thing that a lot of the time, the University misses,” said Banks, who grew up in Charlottesville. “Hearing Dr. Shelley Murphy speak opened my eyes to the pivotal position that we're in with this organization: We can have these events that bring in people who are experienced in both asking the tough questions and requiring the tough answers, so that we can all step outside of ourselves and feel empowered to contribute to a better policy outcome.”

In addition to bringing in thought-provoking speakers, BSLIP has spearheaded programming designed to increase the number of black applicants to the Batten School since Banks founded the organization in 2016. The group recently partnered with the Batten Latinx Network to offer application workshops for students of color interested in applying to the school. Events like these not only encourage more black student applicants, they also help introduce those students to peer mentors who look like them and have succeeded in reaching similar goals. “I know for me coming into Batten, it would have been nice to get in contact with fourth-year students who were black to ask them about their experiences,” said Carrington. “But I didn't really know how to connect with them. I think that's one of the biggest benefits with BSLIP—it's creating that network.” 

Banks and Carrington would like to see BSLIP continue to build on those connections, perhaps through an annual event that could be modeled after the Black Policy Conference held at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The event could easily be tied to UVA’s existing Black Alumni Weekend, Banks said. 

Both students believe BSLIP will continue to advance UVA’s vision of diversity and inclusion. For prospective and current Batten students of color, ownership and representation go hand in hand. “We want to make them feel comfortable seeing faces that look like theirs in spaces they want to enter in the future,” Carrington said. “BSLIP is a way of saying to students, ‘Hey, this is doable—this is possible for you.’”